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Suit Up Or Drop Out Girls Are Finding There Isn’t Much Middle Ground

Fri., March 28, 1997

For active girls entering their teens, the choice seems to be the team or the TV.

Girls who continue in competitive sports can take advantage of the explosion in athletic opportunities created by Title IX, the federal legislation that requires equal access to athletics for both sexes.

But girls who don’t compete have few athletic options and what appears to be a powerful social pressure to drop out, said researcher Patty S. Freedson of the University of Massachusetts. The young teens tend to give up exercise, she said.

“There’s a lot of paradox here,” she said. “One group is motivated, the other is de-motivated.”

In 1994, 2.24 million girls were on high school teams, Freedson said, citing figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations. This means one in three girls participated, compared with one in 27 when Title IX was enacted 25 years ago, she said.

But girls who are not on teams are more likely than similar boys to give up vigorous physical activity in general, Freedson said. By age 18, only 30 percent of girls were active three days a week, compared with close to half the boys, she said.

“They are not now doing something we know is good for you and which they once found fun.”

But why the girls drop out is not clear, she said.

Intensification of competition in junior high and high school probably pushes out kids with lesser abilities. There ought to be a middle ground between competition and doing nothing, she said.

Schools and community groups should try to create one, said a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Regular physical activity could reduce teens’ risk in adulthood of chronic diseases associated with sedentary lifestyles.

Comprehensive daily physical education should be required of students from kindergarten through 12th grade, the report said. But PE doesn’t have to be aimed at winning, it said.

Competitive sports “usually underserve students who are less skilled, less physically fit and not attracted to competitive sports,” the report said. “One reason that participation in sports declines steadily during late childhood and adolescence is that undue emphasis is placed on competition.”

Dance works well for these girls, said researcher Russell R. Pate of the University of South Carolina, the report’s principal investigator. Track and field might work well, too, because there is an event for just about every body type, he said.

“When I was a kid, I was in competitive sports, but when I hit junior-high age, I quit,” said Kristen Janikas, who works at an athletic club in Encinitas, Calif. “My PE teacher was a man who told us to walk the track and then do what we do best, which was to sit and talk.”

Janikas, 27, runs programs aimed at getting young teens through this crucial period. She teaches forms of exercise and how the body responds to them, and guides teens into adult-style health club workouts.


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